How Farren Roper manages to make it to through every qualifier.
Farren Roper rings me two minutes before our interview in a caf'e to say he's easy to spot because he's wearing a pink shirt and is drinking wine.
He flashes a welcoming smile and delivers a never-met-before hug with the air of someone who's enjoying life immensely. I like him instantly because he's delightfully uncorporate, even though he heads the Central Marketing Organisation for Microsoft SA.
"It's ironic that I ended up in technology because I used to be one of the biggest technophobes," he says. "If I think back ten years ago, I'd never have anticipated it. But I'm 100 percent where I'm meant to be. Life doesn't always take you in the direction you expect, and thank goodness for that."
Roper grew up in Eldorado Park and as a township kid, he didn't have access to technology until he started playing with a computer as a teenager. "I love it now, staying up to speed with technology changes. It's the most exciting business to be in and there's no industry today that's divorced from technology - it underpins everything."
He's one of two boys brought up by their single mother, and he originally anticipated life as a lawyer. "At school, I was very outspoken and part of the debating society, so it was a fait accompli that I would go to university and study law. During my degree, I realised I wasn't meant to be a lawyer, but I'm a finisher, so I thought, 'Let me finish this thing, then use law to get into business'."
He joined First National Bank (FNB) as the head of legal risk and compliance for its telecoms division, which had acquired a telecoms licence to resell bandwidth to the group. It grew into an internet service provider and developed mobile banking apps, with Roper in the team driving those innovations.
A highlight from that time was giving a TED talk on how to use mobile technologies to connect more effectively with customers. "It seems kind of obvious now, but at the time, the FNB banking app was considered quite an innovation. I remember a lot of mixed feelings around whether it would be a success.
The way it was received by the market gave the bank a first-mover advantage in the digital space and that's something I'm proud to have been part of."
He left FNB to set up a business with two friends developing apps, but shelved it for the opportunity to join Microsoft. That came about because Roper sits on the board of AdvTech's Schools Division, and met the former CEO of Microsoft SA, Mteto Nyati, to discuss what Microsoft was doing in education.
"I'm very passionate about education and the AdvTech board is one of my most exciting projects because it's a major player in the education space. Having an opportunity to provide insight from a technology and innovation side is such a privilege and something I take very seriously."
Life doesn't always take you in the direction you expect, and thank goodness for that.
Roper joined Microsoft in 2014 as it morphed from being a software giant into a mobile cloud company. "The Microsoft I joined then and the Microsoft today feel like two different companies for all the right reasons. It's completely reinvented itself to become a major contender in the cloud," he says.
The culture has changed to break down silos and promote collaboration. "You can't succeed now without making other people succeed, so part of your measurability is how you make other people successful. I love that because I've always been a team player."
Another change is that his marketing department is expected to generate revenue through digital and social media efforts. "Marketing is very measured - if you spend $1, you have to make $1 back again. I have a revenue target in terms of online direct sales and I can tell the stakeholders what my contribution was towards the growth of the business. It's awesome because you are moving away from being a cost centre to being a profit centre."
Roper didn't come from a traditional marketing background, but from a digital and social media environment. "When I joined, I thought, 'Have these people made the right decision because I'm not a traditional marketer?', but I did understand how to acquire customers online and connect with them on social media, and that's the direction Microsoft is taking."
His skills have seen Microsoft SA achieve a higher level of social media engagement than any other branch in the world. The number of 'friends' and 'likes' is no longer important, but the amount of retweets, positive comments, sharing of its content and online sales matter enormously.
"Consumers are digital and social beings with blogs and a social presence, and in the past quarter, Microsoft has trended on Twitter no less than six times, so we have become highly relevant. Our South African customers love us. We are building a consumer fan base, which is important because for business-to-business, we are number one, but for consumers, we are still a challenger," he says.
Working for Microsoft is highly demanding, but he says he's thriving. "I love learning new things. This company is evolving so quickly that I need to evolve myself or I'll get left behind. Every day I learn something that makes me feel completely stupid, but it's such a blessing because it means I'm growing."
Working for a global organisation means Roper can chat to his marketing colleagues anywhere in the world to learn from their experiences. "I get to tap into the intellectual capital of some of the smartest people in the world and also to share amazing things coming out of South Africa with them."
He also loves the opportunity to give youngsters a hand up through Microsoft's youth programme, where unemployed graduates are given a year's work experience. "One of mine was recently employed by a global agency. It's so cool because I'm changing the life of someone who has never had the opportunity before by giving them a future."
When you ask how he managed to do so well himself, Roper instantly credits his mother. "Education is the only way to break the poverty cycle and she instilled discipline in us. My mother was a really positive role model in our lives and that's what kids need. That's why I feel it's my responsibility to help kids who are in the same situation as I was to achieve success."
This article was first published in the [March 2016] edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.